The right to be tried by a jury is one of the most fundamental rights provided to accused people under the United States Constitution. John Adams believed that jury trials were part of the “heart and lungs of liberty.” But juries can, as all trial lawyers know, sometimes arrive at strange results. That was precisely what happened in Ali v. Kipp. The plaintiff in that case, Imran Ali, alleged that a police officer had used excessive force. According to Ali, the officer had “slammed [Ali’s] head into the bars and wall of a holding cell.” The officer, by contrast, said that all he had done was guide an intoxicated Ali to the cell and place him on a bench after which Ali injured himself. After hearing all the evidence, a jury in New York found that the officer had, indeed, used excessive force and injured Ali. But despite that finding, the jury did not award Ali any damages.
Ali filed a motion with the district court asking for a new trial under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 59 arguing that the verdict was “inconsistent” because, he questioned, how could the jury find that the police officer had injured him yet award him no money? The district judge, however, decided that the verdict could be reconciled. Although Ali had principally focused on the injury to his head, he had also presented evidence that he had been dragged to the cell causing his clothing to be ripped. According to the judge, the jury could have believed that part of Ali’s story but rejected his claim regarding the injury to his head. In that case, only nominal damages would have been appropriate. The judge, therefore, awarded $1 to Ali.
On appeal, Ali made essentially the same argument as he had made in his motion before the district court judge and contended that the judge had been wrong to try to harmonize the verdict. The Second Circuit disagreed. The three-judge panel held that not only was the judge permitted to adopt a theory that reconciled the jury’s verdict—indeed, the law required him to try to do so—but he could even adopt a theory that neither party had advanced so long as the theory was consistent with the law and the facts. In that regard, the appellate court agreed with the district judge’s conclusion that the jury could have concluded that some excessive force was used when the officer placed Ali in the cell but that the officer did not cause the head injury.
The Second Circuit’s decision confirms the wide discretion that trial judges have when fulfilling their responsibility to reconcile seemingly inconsistent verdicts. It also confirms that an exercise of such discretion is extremely difficult to overcome on appeal. As the Second Circuit noted, a judge’s ruling on a Rule 59 motion can only be reversed if, viewing the evidence most favorable to the non-moving party, the district judge “(1) based its decision on an error of law, (2) made a clearly erroneous factual finding, or (3) otherwise ‘rendered a decision that cannot be located within the range of permissible decisions.’” That is an extremely high standard to meet, particularly where the law expressly grants trial judges wide latitude.
Yet the decision in Ali v. Kipp does not mean that the trial judge’s discretion is unlimited. There were various factors at play in Ali’s case that supported how the judge went about reconciling the verdict. First, people injured by police officers who use excessive force are, as a matter of law, not automatically entitled to damages; it is up to the jury to decide what damages are appropriate. Second, the jury was expressly told by the judge that they had to consider whether excessive force was used when placing Ali in the cell and did not limit the excessive force claim to the head injury that allegedly occurred afterwards. Third, the jury was also told that they had to award damages relating only to injuries that were “proximately caused” by the officer’s conduct. Fourth, the jury’s verdict was “ambiguous” as to whether the excessive force they believed had been used i.e. whether it was the force used to place Ali in the cell or the alleged force that was used afterwards.
The practical lesson that the case teaches is that trial lawyers must be very careful to ensure that the jury instructions precisely detail the alleged wrongful conduct and that the jury’s verdict form contain questions that require the jury to precisely explain the basis for their decision. That is particularly true where there are multiple alleged acts of wrongful conduct. If the verdict form is too broad—for example, if the form merely requires the jury to answer a general question as to whether the defendant is liable—a trial judge will have broad discretion to interpret the jury’s answer to resolve apparent inconsistencies. It is, therefore, imperative that trial counsel scrutinize both jury instructions and verdict sheets to make sure that they conform to the actual theory of the case and do not permit any ambiguity that might create confusion for the jurors.
If you have any questions about criminal trial litigation or criminal appeals, please contact Andrew Horne at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 374-9791.
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